Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review: "Only God Forgives"

Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives offers one of the single best trailers of 2013. It had all the ingredients of a Cannes success story: an auteur director reuniting with the actor who made him matter, a jaw-dropping performance from Kristin Scott Thomas, and the potential for controversy. Unfortunately, this formula did not pay off. The film was almost universally panned at the spring festival. I walked into the theatre expecting to witness an unwatchable film. Ryan Gosling, the film's star and Refn's unnamed Driver in 20011, speaks scarcely a hundred words in ninety minutes. Only Thomas, by virtue of being a vicious actress and choosing a role out of her comfort zone, fully sinks her claws into the role and offers something close to character development. Only God Forgives is unashamedly violent. Reviews choose to blame the film's lack of success on its overblown violence. Yet, the film lacks any semblance of a narrative. This is what prevented me from connecting with the story. While I did understand who the main characters are and what they sometimes seemed intent on accomplishing, the plot becomes just becomes fodder for a seemingly endless string of confusing, dialogue-free scenes. I tried to like Only God Forgives despite all its difficulties and distractions. Only God Forgives is the type of film that might be best watched on mute while listening to your own soundtrack (though I would suggest watching the dinner scene and avoiding the torture scene, if you are squeamish!).

Julian (Gosling) is an American living in Bangkok. He runs a boxing club that acts as a front for a drug ring. Julian's older brother Billy (Tom Burke) rapes and kills an underage prostitute before being killed by her father. His death is witnessed by Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Julian's mother Crystal (Thomas) arrives and demands that he avenge his brother's death. Beyond that, the plot is thin.

Nicolas Winding Refn is completely responsible for the success (or failure?) of Only God Forgives. As well as director, he wrote the film's screenplay. We must believe that the finished product is the culmination of his vision. After the success of Drive in 2011 it was clear that Refn's next film would gain attention, but the film's lack of narrative does not merit the type of promotion and release it achieved. On the side, the film's Danish producer Lene Borglum has worked in the hardcore porn industry. Is that why the torture scene was so explicit? Ryan Gosling has expressed interest in quitting acting for a while (is this more realistic than Steven Soderbergh?), and I for one would not be upset by this. His performances are becoming too stagnant. I yearn for the days of Half Nelson (2006) and Blue Valentine (2010). Even his performance this year in The Place Beyond the Pines felt liked it lacked a certain depth. In Only God Forgives he succumbs to his cockiness. Being hot is not enough to develop a character. I hope that Refn works to fully develop his next idea before filming it. Not every great trailer can be a great film.

My rating: 1 star out of 4.

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